Toward A Less Binary World
Everything in life is comprised of complexity—a sliding scale between extremes. And yet, we judge ourselves and one another according to either-or edicts and dogmas, causing undue suffering. Here are some thoughts and strategies.
We love to define things in binary terms. It’s easier that way, for two reasons. First, black/white, safe/dangerous, good/bad labels use up less brain power. “Close enough is good enough” in most cases, after which many of us allow ourselves to stop thinking about them. Second, we can’t help but judge everything we experience, and a binary system of labels allows us to do just that, efficiently.
Just witness our confusion, and visceral reactions, to issues of race or sexuality.
When it comes to race, it becomes quickly complex. In the U.S. in 1970, just 1% of babies born were multi-racial, while today it has increased tenfold, to one in every ten. And yet, mixed-race people are more often than not forced into one paradigmatic label or another. The shocking but maybe obvious thing, in hindsight — given our history of colonization, and slavery — is that half of today’s bi-racial American adults are mixed white-Native American, and another third includes some amount of African parentage, according to Pew Research.
And yet: to most people, you’re either black or you’re white; Hispanic, or Native American; etc. etc.
This is anything but benign. At its most extreme, as instigated by the American South and codified into Law in several states, the “one-drop rule” stated that “any person with even one ancestor of black ancestry (“one drop” of black blood) is considered black (Negro or colored in historic terms),” according to Wikipedia. This was used to root out “invisible blackness”. Pre-emancipation, states used different metrics, with some considering people “legally white” if they were less than one-quarter or one-eighth black.
The impetus behind these labels is clear: they are judgments that directly impact someone’s prospects in life: their freedom, education, employment, social acceptance and safety, to name just five.
Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass — one of history greatest orators — was of mixed parentage. So, too, were (or are) Booker T. Washington, Maya Rudolph, Kamala Harris, Lenny Kravitz, Rashida Jones, The Rock, Drake, Mariah Carrey, Bob Marley (interestingly, he was African, Syrian and European Jew), Malcolm Gladwell, Chanel Iman, Derek Jeter, Sade, Jennifer Beals, Tiger Woods, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and — oh yeah, Barack Obama.
It’s not just them. One in ten of us is just like them.
Even more confusingly (to the labelers), the idea of race itself is coming under fire, with new discoveries in DNA sequencing. The Harvard Gazette published a study by Harvard Medical School geneticist David Reich, who sampled DNA from “938 ancient humans — more than all other teams working in the field combined.” His conclusion? DNA reveals we are all genetic mutts. In other words, “no one — no population is, or ever could be, pure.”
In a blow to white European supremacy, he adds that the relatively advanced farmers in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey — people we mistakenly label Arabs) arrived and mixed with European hunter-gatherers, and that this is “the largest source of ancestry in Europeans today.” It happened again in a second wave, around the time of Stonehenge, resulting in the replacement of 90% of the population. Today, genetically, 100% of European males have Anatolian Y chromosomes.
Chew on that.
Shades of gray are everywhere. We simply choose to ignore them.
When it comes to sexuality, we fare even worse. With race, as we currently conceive of it, there are many labels. And as much as we force people into this or that group, there are many. Black, White, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, East Asian, Indian, etc. Each of them is a gross generalization (there are over 3,000 different ethnic groups who speak 2,100 languages in Africa, alone). And yet: there are more “flavors” of race than there are of sexuality.
Or so we believe.
Most nations on Earth tolerate no more than a binary male/female label. The rationale is clear: either you can make babies, or you cannot. Thus the species itself is binary, apologists will say. And yet: in the animal kingdom, homosexuality and bisexuality are common. Elephants, bats, penguins, pigeons, lizards, fruit flies, ducks, dolphins, and famously, bonobos (a great ape, akin to chimpanzees), are among the scores of animals in which humans have observed non-binary behaviors. Bonobos are the only social, matriarchal society of ape, and one of our closest ancestors. They are fully bisexual. More than half of sexual activity among them occurs between two females.
Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal famously concluded that sexual activity is the bonobo’s way of avoiding or diffusing conflict.
A new take on, “Make love, not war.”
It has been an oft-repeated data point that 10% of the human population is gay. We can thank the research of famed biologist, zoologist and sexologist Alfred Kinsey for that statistic. While Kinsey’s work is now 80 years old, apparently, that number still holds up to today’s scrutiny, according to a 2015 article in the Guardian. What’s more interesting is that even back in the 1940’s, Kinsey himself believed that sexuality was a scale, not a binary either/or proposition. His 6-point scale slid between extremes of “exclusive” homosexuality or heterosexuality. In his most shocking finding, 37% of men had had some form of homosexual experience between adolescence and old age.
Fast forward to today. In compiling 11 surveys across 4 countries, UCLA’s Williams Institute shares its data. 3.5% of US adults consider themselves LGB, and 0.3% as transgender. In addition — and where it gets interesting — 11% of US adults report same-sex attraction, 8.2% of which report engaging in same-sex behavior. Taken in sum, these things support Kinsey’s earlier findings, and then some. Moreover, it supports his sliding scale theory, as three times as many people as those who identify as LGB have nonetheless also engaged in same-sex activity, or been attracted to someone, without acting on it.
The last thing it’s important to note is that these are issues of self-identification. Because of stigmatization, or the nature of studies, we can safely assume that there are more people who personally identify with non-purely heterosexual feelings than have reported it. In short, some people just aren’t comfortable with admitting — to others, or themselves — that they’ve got a sexual crush on someone who doesn’t fit the accepted gender labels, while others are living double lives. Moreover, there are people who don’t even know that they have those feelings, unless and/or until they unearth them, at some point in life. In the end, some people die “in the closet”.
And so, I’d be willing to bet that Kinsey’s 10% number is, in truth — and as measured on his sliding scale — more than a little bit higher.
It could be multiples.
Religion is an odd thing to consider on a binary scale, because generally, one doesn’t practice multiple religions simultaneously. Still, there are some lessons that apply to the binary mindset of people.
I’ll start with a personal story. When I first visited a client in Northern Ireland for whom I was designing a new police academy, they sat me down to warn me about the then-40-year old period of conflict between their pro-loyalist and pro-republican citizen factions, over issues of whether Ulster County should remain with England, or join Ireland. While the conflict was about nationalism, it quickly developed an ethnic-sectarian bent, driving a wedge between Protestants (loyalists) and Catholics (republicans). By the time I arrived, the police were known to the Catholics as all Protestant loyalists, when in fact, by the numbers and by design, they were 50–50.
My long-time policeman client warned me, “If you find yourself on the wrong side of the street in the wrong neighborhood, you could be beaten or killed.” That was 10 years after the signing of the Good Friday agreement that saw the official end to the conflict. Anyone that someone didn’t recognize on the street was immediately set upon, and asked the same question.
“So, what are ya?”
Everyone local knew what that meant: that one had to declare one’s religion in response. That’s because physiologically, you couldn’t tell the difference between sects. As the man, Gary, told me, a Mormon police officer was visiting from the U.S. and was given the same warning that I was. During his visit, he was set upon by a local as he walked, who asked him the famous question. In response, he replied, “I’m a Mormon.” And while what happened next sounds like a joke, it wasn’t. The man screwed up his face, and retorted, “So, are ye a Protestant Mormon or a Catholic one?”
It was then that my belief that being Jewish would save me from a beating, fell apart. A declaration of fealty had to be made.
And so, binary, when it comes to religion — like race and sexuality — is the path to hatred, violence, and all too often, murder.
While it’s impossible to pin down just how many people have been killed in the name of religion (for belief in another god, or none, or not being pious enough within a single dogma), there’s no shortage of people trying to tie it up in one neat number. This Reddit thread from 5 years ago is as good as any a place to make the point that it’s a lot. It lists the death tolls of exclusively religion-motivated wars and genocides, as follows:
· The Crusades: 6,000,000
· Thirty Years War: 11,500,000
· French Wars of Religion: 4,000,000
· Second Sudanese Civil War: 2,000,000
· Lebanese Civil War: 250,000
· Muslim Conquests of India: 80,000,000
· Congolese Genocide (King Leopold II): 13,000,000
· Armenian Genocide: 1,500,000
· Rwandan Genocide: 800,000
· Eighty Years’ War: 1,000,000
· Nigerian Civil War: 1,000,000
· Great Peasants’ Revolt: 250,000
· First Sudanese Civil War: 1,000,000
· Jewish Diaspora (Not Including the Holocaust): 1,000,000
· The Holocaust (Jewish and Homosexual Deaths): 6,500,000
· Islamic Terrorism Since 2000: 150,000
· Iraq War: 500,000
· US Western Expansion (Justified by “Manifest Destiny”):20,000,000
· Atlantic Slave Trade (Justified by Christianity): 14,000,000
· Aztec Human Sacrifice: 80,000
· AIDS deaths in Africa largely due to opposition to condoms: 30,000,000
· Spanish Inquisition: 5,000
· TOTAL: 195,035,000 deaths in the name of religion
Whether 200 million humans have died this way, or millions on either side of it, we are a judgmental lot indeed. Here, a binary approach to life (with us, or against us) misses the gray area of tolerance, where bridges are built. Being a Protestant Mormon, as nonsensical as that is, is less nonsensical than being a fervent adherent to any singular dogma if you are willing to blow yourself up in the name of your deity, just as long as you take some infidels with you in the process.
I’ll take a hybrid over a kaboom, any day.
The Cost of Being Binary
The problem here with holding a binary worldview — whatever the subject — is manifold. First, when we force labels onto people and situations that don’t fit, we cannot build an appreciation for the nuance and detail of how people really think, and who they really are. Second, it’s easier to become bigoted when everything is either/or, because these designations are about judgment, more than about understanding. Take multiple choice questionnaires, or tests. Americans love them. They preclude the need to cultivate one’s own thoughts, and articulate them. Third, bigotry has only one outlet, when it’s left to fester: violence. And fourth, tying the first three together, we miss out on the greatest gift of all: learning — the expansion of what we know into a more empowering understanding of the world we live in.
In short, labeling begets ignorance and sloth.
And it’s dangerous.
So, where does this pervasive urge to adjudicate everyone and everything come from? Why is it so prevalent? Well, our brain’s biology prejudices us toward this act. Evolutionarily, we needed to learn and retain things in simple terms in order to parse what was safe from what was dangerous, whether it was an attack (lion: bad. Run!) or a threat (tiny red cluster berries on low bush: safe. Eat!).
But these empirical things — animal behavior, food safety — are very different from the constructed — fabricated — world of humans. Ours is a life of abstraction. We label and judge our feelings. We create stories about spirits and forces we’ve never encountered, and navigate life by these things. We project associative qualities onto every metric of difference we encounter. Skin color is somehow related to our degree of humanity, intelligence, and the threat we pose. Sexual preference (or non-declarative openness) is somehow deterministic; that is, it is natural, or unnatural, in spite of the fact that if it exists, it is thereby natural… Choice of origin story — and the amount of one’s life spent in adulatory ritual — is somehow representative of the level of threat one poses to another human, not to mention one’s own feelings on morality, virtue, suitability for marriage, or even citizenship.
Where do these things come from? Surely our amygdalae — our animal brains — have nothing to do with it. Animals don’t harbor secret beliefs in deities; they don’t judge their cousins for mounting one another; and they don’t plot with one another to round up all the giraffes with 3 fewer spots, all the tigers with stripes 6 inches longer, all the whales without barnacles, or sharks with extra remoras, or pigeons with alternate coloring, and dispatch them in an act of animal genocide.
No. These are uniquely human acts.
I’d suggest that our propensity to assigning judgment comes from two places, the first of which should be obvious: ignorance. When something is unfamiliar to us, it is as-yet a threat, until we can understand it enough to find our ease alongside of it. When someone doesn’t look like us, they are no different from a lion to our amygdalae. Different=Danger. And so, we have a choice every time we come across something — someone — new: we can invest the time it takes to understand whether or not they are indeed “friend or foe”, benign or a menace, and stretch our contextual understanding of this new piece of the world, or we can retreat into the fixed sandbox we are willing to play in, and mount a defense to those who stand outside of it, because the route to judgment is easier than the path to understanding.
The second reason some of us are predisposed to judge harshly stems, I’m afraid, from a far, far darker place: that of self-nonacceptance. That is, some of us are simply not comfortable in our own skin, when it comes to our beliefs or physiognomy. And so, every time we come across someone whose physicality or opinions vary from our own — whether these pertain to race, religion, sexuality, socio-economics, style, national origin, political views, height, body shape, or beauty — those of us who are not truly 100% comfortable with where we ourselves sit in the context of others, find ourselves bumping up against uncomfortable truths.
And the uncomfortable truths are where our judgments become existential. Our choices will either empower and heal us; or they will cripple and rob us of our own wellbeing. Moreover, our choices will have the same — albeit for different reasons — impact on those toward whom we aim our energies.
In any event, and whatever our actions, every aspect of humanity — natural or man-made — comes with a dizzying range of variability.
Said simply, others are mirrors. When we don’t like when we see in one, many of us will despair, or try to make our reflection go away, so we can stop being reminded of it. The degree to which each of us reacts — in kindness or in violence — depends on how much pain we feel, or are willing to bear.
Many anti-immigration citizens don’t hate foreigners because of skin color or distinct beliefs, necessarily, but because they fear losing their job. But go a step deeper. Why would we fear losing our job, if we are good at it, have a track record, and have built relationships with our colleagues? Well, if I’m not sure about my talents, relationships or perceived value, then I do fear the day someone comes along and is better. Immigrants are simply easier targets than our neighbors, because it’s easier to prevent more competition from entering than to kick a citizen out of their own home. And both of these are easier than procuring the best insurance policy of all: the investment in one’s own capacity, and talents.
Many heterosexual, married individuals don’t fear gay marriage because God said this was deviant behavior, necessarily, but because the act of its legality opens the door to my own sexual questions. Since in truth sexuality is a range — like everything else — but since religions have almost universally declared non-binary male-female choices a sin, the fear many of us have about whether our own views of self are truly as black and white as we would have them be, is an uncomfortable place to be.
Today’s labels for sexuality are increasing in nuance and complexity — a reflection of how younger generations understand their own feelings. Today, according to The Washington Post, the number of gen Z adults who self-identify as LGBTQIA+ is one in six. As in, nearly 17%. This far outstrips Kinsey’s and others’ metrics of identification. That number is likely to increase. Every three years, it has done just that, recently — by approximately 1%. Phillip Hammack, director of the Sexual and Gender Diversity Laboratory at UC Santa Cruz, says “The rigid lines around gender and sexuality are just opening up for everybody.” The writing is on the wall: more of us are less black-and-white on the subject than cop to it. And there’s little more uncomfortable than one’s sexuality, in a rigid society.
And with respect to religion — the world’s deadliest fiction — many zealous adherents don’t fear other faiths because doing so would weaken our omnipotent God, necessarily, but because the presence of another dogma is a mirror to my own, and at some level forces me to question whether or not this central pillar of life purpose is in fact stable, or whether the foundation of my life may come crashing down on my head, once I test it.
Take atheism. Why would anyone hate an atheist, if in fact their “infidelity” were simply self-defeating? Meaning, that if they don’t believe in “the true God”, then aren’t they the ones that suffer, not us, by being excluded from rewards, or doomed to a life of eternal suffering? Of course that’s the headline. But regardless, atheists have been maligned and persecuted more than any other group, other than Jews. Why is this? Well, if in my private thoughts, I’m not truly secure in my own beliefs, then doesn’t anyone who seems free with theirs force me to consider whether or not my own beliefs and actions have been valuable, or for naught? Doesn’t the fact that I fear them also mean that I fear — somewhere, inside — that they may convince me, if I spend time listening to them, that I may have been wrong all this time, and that my life purpose may have been misguided?
“Men create gods after their own image.” —Aristotle
Isn’t it easier just to kill them, to make them go away and surround myself with people who think, look and act just like me?
Read this piece that I wrote for Blank Page on the subject of Standing Out, if you want my answer.
These are all acts of self-nonacceptance; of self-hatred.
Truly happy, centered, secure people don’t malign or persecute others, for any reason of difference. Rather, depending on who they are, they either accept that differences exist benignly, or they see them as opportunities to learn.
But to every subject — race, sexuality, religion, beauty, intellect, talent, skill, charm, tolerance, energy, spirituality, confidence — the common denominator is that these things consist of a range, not a binary choice, or label.
We are not all equally religious. We are not all equally heterosexual. We are not all equally [fill in your race here]. We are not all equally beautiful, or learned, or talented, or skilled, or charming, or tolerant, or spiritual, or energetic, or confident. In fact, some of these things don’t even exist, empirically. They are judgments.
And we are a judgmental lot.
The way to true happiness is the hard path. It always is. First and foremost, we need to be brave enough to plumb the depths of our own psyches, to get to know ourselves, without trickery. If not, there is no step two. But if we do, then when we come across something uncomfortable about ourselves, we need to become aware of our own discomfort, to see it for what it is: a signal that reveals it is a subject about which we have some soul-searching to do.
We then need to invest the time and energy on finding out what there is to know about our confusion or fears. The Internet is a great source for everything. So is meditation. And for those given to it, psychedelic therapies are wondrous. For the less intrepid, friends and family are always some of our greatest sources of insight, because they often know us best, and are critically outside of the perception-warping influence of our demons.
What’s imperative, though, is that we suspend disbelief, or judgment, or labeling, as we try to expand our definition of who we are. Through the investigation of what’s possible, we may find out what’s probable, for us. These truths — which evolve over time, by the way; we’re anything but static creatures — are all personal and non-transferrable. Meaning, our definition of self will never be the same as someone else’s, beyond a shared headline.
The goal in all of this is straightforward: to make peace with every piece of ourselves, in the name of self-acceptance, and self-compassion.
To help in this matter, we need to recognize that life is far less binary than most of us think it is—the way in which we have overwhelmingly forced ourselves to define it. Good people can do bad things. Beauty and ugliness can exist in the same person. Beliefs can be questioned while being violently acted upon, simultaneously. We are walking contradictions.
Further, superficial metrics of physicality are themselves a rainbow. Just take a walk down the cosmetics aisle of your local pharmacy, and look at the concealers on offer.
Moreover, we each are, in and of ourselves, representative of a range of internal truths. How we feel on any given day differs greatly, often vacillating within any given range in which we’ve allowed ourselves to dwell: between fear and love, joy and pain, confidence and doubt, bravery and cowardice, acceptance and judgment, energy and sloth, self-love and self-hate.
In addition, our own thoughts and beliefs evolve, over time. Many of us — no one more than those who invest in their own development, regularly — don’t recognize our younger selves, on our path to greater understanding. Others hold on to who we are — or were — for dear life, seeing every outside influence as a threat, for just one reason: out of fear.
So, invest in yourself. Trust that what you think you know, and what you’ve labeled, is expedient, but imperfect, and just as often, wrong. Accept that the default is gray, not black and white. And understand that we are all engaged in the same thing: trying to find ourselves in a world of complexity, surrounded by fellow travelers doing exactly the same thing, whose own realities reveal to us just how complex the world is, because none of us looks, feels, acts or behaves in exactly the same way as others do, however shallow or deep our self-awareness is, on any given subject.
Life is a rainbow, within and without.
Learn that, and you may be ready to discover more colors.